prison bars

Two bills addressing criminal-justice reform in Arizona died in the Legislature on Friday, further diminishing the chance for meaningful reform this session.

House Bill 2424 would have addressed an ongoing issue with Class 6 undesignated felonies, automatically designating them as Class 1 misdemeanors.

Class 6 felonies are the lowest level felony in the state, and under the current law, are automatically considered felonies unless otherwise designated as a misdemeanor.

Under the proposed bill, a person could be convicted of a felony only if they failed to complete required programming. The bill unanimously passed on the House floor but was held off the Senate Judiciary Committee’s agenda Thursday and without a vote, failed to advance.

Senate Bill 1437, also called “ban the box” legislation, would have prohibited employers in the private sectors from asking job applicants about their criminal histories, until the applicant has been given a job interview.

If the person isn’t given an interview, the potential employer can’t ask about criminal backgrounds until the applicant is given a conditional offer of employment. The bill would have also limited questions to criminal records within the preceding seven years only, and only if the conviction would directly relate to the job. SB1437 passed in the Senate and was assigned to the House Rules Committee in early March, but never received a hearing.

A third bill will also likely soon meet its demise: House Bill 2361 would have repealed Arizona’s “repeat offender” sentencing enhancement — which currently doesn’t require the person have previous convictions — and prevent people who haven’t been previously convicted of a felony from being charged as a repeat offender.

The bill passed on the House floor and has been set for an April 2 hearing in the Senate Appropriations Committee, but sources tell the Star it’s still unlikely to advance.

Arizona’s prison population is more than 12 times larger today than it was 40 years ago, with 42,320 people incarcerated in 2015, according to a report by FWD.us, a bipartisan political lobbying group. Since 2000, Arizona’s prison population has increased 60 percent, but that growth wasn’t driven by rising crime, rather policy and practitioner choices that dramatically increased the number of people imprisoned for lower-level offenses, the FWD.us report shows.

The number of people admitted to Arizona prisons for drug offenses has nearly doubled since 2017, and for all types of crimes, people stay in Arizona prisons significantly longer than in other states, according to FWD.us.

These and other factors have led to Arizona taxpayers spending more than $1 billion each year on the prison system.

At least eight bills addressing criminal-justice reform were introduced to the Arizona House and Senate this session, with many of them being denied committee hearings early on in the process. The greatest let down for many reform advocates was the demise of House Bill 2270, which would have changed the law surrounding Arizona’s “truth in sentencing” requirement that inmates serve 85 percent of their sentence. The law would have allowed prisoners to earn up to 50 percent off their sentence through good behavior and participation in classes and programming.

HB 2270 was assigned to be heard by the House Judiciary and Public Safety committees, but failed to receive hearings in either committee by the late-February deadline.

In an Arizona Town Hall on criminal-justice form earlier this month, Assistant Pima County Public Defender Nate Wade said that this year’s session was unlike those in the past, in that prosecutors, probation employees, defense attorneys and prison representatives were all involved in the bill writing process.

With only a few remaining holdouts in the legislature who still don’t support criminal-justice reform, Wade said he’s hopeful that progress isn’t that far off.

Tucson-based nonprofit American Friends Service Committee-Arizona lobbied hard for HB2270, organizing an event at the State Capital in late January and sending representatives to testify during committee hearings. They also kept the community updated on the status of other criminal-justice reform bills, sending out weekly email blasts urging people to contact their elected officials to request hearings.

Caroline Isaacs, program director for AFSC-AZ, said that the committee chairs’ refusal to hear the bills is “straight-up obstructionism.”

“(This session) was different. As disappointed as we were in the outcome, its really important to recognize the incredible progress we made,” Isaacs told the Star.

“The number of good sentencing reform bills introduced by Republicans this year was exponential.”

Isaacs called the introduction a watershed, saying that it was a clear signal that there was a broad embrace of sentencing reform in a bipartisan manner.

“The demonstration of the brokenness of our democracy, that you would have this outpouring of support from across the state and across party lines, polling data indicating that this is what the people want and demand,” Isaacs said. “To have that shut down by a handful of individuals is outrageous.” Isaacs said that AFSC-AZ will remain engaged, and that it’s not over until it’s over.

“I can see that the walls are crumbling, so we just need to keep pushing and demanding that our elected officials do what we sent them there to do, which is represent us,” Isaacs said.

AFSC-AZ has expressed concern about one of the remaining bills, Senate Bill 1310, which would increase earned release credit opportunity to three days for every seven days served for people sentenced for possession of drugs or paraphernalia. The bill creates the appearance of real reform, but doesn’t go far enough, AFSC-AZ has said.

On Wednesday, representatives from AFSC-AZ, the ACLU and Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice spoke out against the bill during a House Judiciary Committee hearing, but it still passed by a vote of 6-4. Arizona Rep. Walt Blackman, who sponsored HB 2270, has promised to vote against the bill on the House floor unless it is amended to address concerns expressed during testimony.

Contact reporter Caitlin Schmidt at cschmidt@tucson.com or 573-4191. Twitter: @caitlincschmidt

I'm a watchdog reporter covering local government, the University of Arizona and sports investigations.